E. Mark Windle 17 April 2023.
This week marks the passing of singer Curtis Johnson, founding member of Memphis soul group The Astors. They may be one of Stax’s less instantly recognisable acts (at least to a mainstream audience), but their work is very familiar to, and respected by, the UK and European rare soul scenes, beach music fans in the south eastern US states, and among southern soul collectors across the globe. All with good reason; The Astors were there pretty much from the beginning. Witnesses to and participants of the birth of Jim Stewart’s and Estelle Axon’s empire, their talents were undeniable. Close harmonies and strong lead vocal deliveries put Curtis and his friends as much at ease with deep soul balladry as uptempo melody, and The Astors would become not only recording artists in their own right but also a regular go-to for backing other artists on the Stax roster. As was the way with many vocal groups of their era, Vietnam eventually got in the way, national success eluded them and lives went in different directions. Perhaps if not for military drafting, the boys’ tenure at Stax could have lasted the duration of the label’s history? We’ll never know.
Curtis Johnson and I first met while I was researching and collecting oral histories for Rhythm Message. He struck me as a quiet, unassuming man, who was surprised but pleased at the transatlantic interest in his own and his friends’ life stories, professional careers and the contribution they made to the soul music industry. Curtis embraced the opportunity to talk about the old days with me over a series of interviews back in 2014, and the article which follows here is the result.
During the years that succeeded Rhythm Message I toyed with the idea of an even deeper exploration of The Astors story as a full book project, and a few months ago we connected again to pursue the idea properly. This time, Curtis’ health issues were apparent, and he feared his now fading memory would not do the project justice. Another sad reminder of the urgent need for documentation and preservation of our music history, before it’s lost forever.
“Orange Mound was and still is a community of families, churches, and businesses with a whole lot of civic pride” says Curtis Johnson. “As children growing up there, we genuinely felt that pride. We enjoyed the love and support of families in a community that was like a miniature self-sufficient Memphis. Parents watched out for other neighbours’ children – including correcting them where necessary!”
Orange Mound, one of the first districts to be purpose-built by and for the black community in Tennessee, was constructed in the 1890s on former plantation-owner property. As a source of affordable housing, African-Americans heading into Memphis from the surrounding rural areas in search of work sought to settle here, and Curtis’ family were among those who arrived post Depression.
“My story in music begins in the mid 1950s, when some friends and I from Melrose High School decided to form a group. I already had a bit of experience in church vocal groups. That was my grandmother’s doing – she played piano, sang in church and directed the choirs. I also took piano lessons from a local music teacher as a child, and played horn in the Melrose High band. Eliehue Stanbeck was musically as active as me. We were classmates, and became close friends. Often we’d get together after school to mess around and harmonize old doo-wop songs, just for fun.
Sometime in 1958 we heard about a guy in our community called Herman “Red” Arnett who was planning to audition students for a teenage vocal group. Red had been a piano player with several bands in various Memphis nightspots and was setting up auditions after school at his home in Orange Mound. What the heck, Eliehue and I thought. Let’s try out.
It was at these auditions where we met Sam Jones, Richard Harris, Richard Griffin, and George Harper, four other black guys who’d been singing with their own doo-wop groups. Red auditioned other kids, but he kept inviting the six of us to come back for months of rehearsals. Christened The Duntinos, we started to put ourselves about: auditioning at clubs, and performing at talent shows and school functions. The Duntinos started to gain a bit of a reputation around town, though Richard Griffin and George Harper eventually left the group for one reason or another. Red managed us for a while, but soon he was back on the circuit playing piano again and so he had to move on.”
The Duntinos’ next mentor came in the form of Rufus Thomas, while still performing weekly gigs at The Plantation Inn, clubs around West Memphis and Arkansas, and at Club Handy on Beale St. in Memphis.
“We knew Rufus by competing on a few talent shows with his daughter Carla and some other local artists. Rufus seemed to take a shine to us. At the time he was a popular radio personality at WDIA, as well as a comedian and singer, and everyone around town knew of him. He had a band that toured around the Memphis area and started taking us on gigs to open his own show. Under the tutelage of Rufus, we were taught stage showmanship (he was master), and he helped us make our rounds to local recording studios, including Sun Records.
None were really interested in signing us at that point, though they were quick to take our material. Without a real manager, we handled most of our business ourselves and didn’t really know what we were doing. Sometimes we’d be strung along by a label for a while. Our lyrics and melodies would be stolen, because we were wet behind the ears as far as the copyrighting process was concerned.”
Next up was a brief spell in New York, as The Duntinos were still hunting for a recording contract:
“My mother, younger sister Dorothy and brother Harold had lived in Buffalo, N.Y. Since we hadn’t been able to get a recording deal in Memphis, Eliehue, Richard Harris, Sam, and I decided to go out to Buffalo for the summer after my school graduation. We had hopes of getting a break there. New York was apparently where good things were happening for young entertainers, and we thought we might have a better chance on the east coast. What we didn’t realize at the time was that Buffalo was nearly 500 miles from New York City! Needless to say, we didn’t have much luck in there. We played the bars and taverns, earning tips and working odd jobs during the day. We stuck it out for a bit, but Richard and Sam had to return to Memphis at the end of the summer break to finish their schooling.
On his return, Carla Thomas contacted Sam about a new recording studio that had opened in an old theatre building in south Memphis. Carla said she and Rufus were getting ready to record there, and advised Sam he might want to check it out. So he did, and felt this could be our big opportunity, here right on our doorstep. Sam urged Eliehue and me to come straight back home – Rufus was keen to use us on backup vocals for a recording session he and Carla had lined up. With options in Buffalo running out fast it was a no brainer. We returned to Memphis, and Rufus introduced us to Jim Stewart and that was that. In no time we were signed up with Satellite Records, and began a stint of regular backup vocal work for Rufus and Carla, Nick Charles and others. After a period of time, Satellite’s session guitarist, songwriter and producer Chips Moman suggested to Jim Stewart that he’d like to produce some of our songs. We recorded two with him.”
Those tracks were “You Make Me Feel So Good”, penned by Curtis who sang lead vocal, and “As You Can See”, written by Eliehue Stanback, with Eliehue on lead. Both songs featured on their first 45 (Satellite S-105) released under the new group name, The Chips – clearly Moman’s idea. The record failed to make any great waves, and later that year, Curtis had to serve in the United States Air Force. They did their best to maintain momentum. On home leave, Curtis would meet up with the others to write and rehearse songs for booked sessions for Satellite, over two or three days at a time. In 1963, and after a final name change to The Astors, “What Can It Be” was released on Satellite’s successor imprint – Stax – backed with “Just Enough to Hurt Me” (Stax S-139), written by Larry Lee, with Curtis on lead.
“Larry Lee lived just a few doors from the Stax studio. He’d introduce his songs to us when I came home on leave. We’d work them up with him then introduce them as an option to Jim Stewart. Other songs of Lee’s we recorded during that period, but not released until the 1990s were “A Woman Who Needs The Love Of A Man” and “Uncle Willie Good Time”, released on “4000 Volts Of Stax” (Stax CDSXD 107) and “Be My Lady” on “Do The Crossover Baby” (Kent CDKEND105). Larry Lee later played guitar with Jimi Hendrix at the Woodstock Festival, and spent over 20 years as Al Green’s on-the-road guitarist and band leader.”
Unlike other acts who recorded for Stax, particularly later in the decade, The Astors’ output was often focussed on group harmonies, with instrumentation complementing but not dominating the vocal performance. “Just Enough to Hurt Me” typified this approach, providing a magnificent mid-tempo track reminiscent of The Impressions, sitting on the cusp of doo-wop and soul. This record is both rare and in-demand, carrying one of the heaviest collector price tags on the Stax imprint. Demand for this 45 has primarily been from US group harmony and early soul collectors, although in recent years has also attracted the interest of UK and European rare soul collectors.
The Astors’ biggest hit for the label was “Candy” (Stax S-170) backed with “I Found Out”, reaching number 12 on the Billboard top 100 charts in 1965. “Candy” was written by Steve Cropper and Isaac Hayes, and its success, particularly in the south eastern states gave the group a promotional boost, performing across the US in Philadelphia, Chicago and at the Apollo in New York. The Astors also took up a number of TV appearances during this period.
“That song was our biggest record, and another one that was recorded while I was home on military leave. It really seemed to take off regionally, then started moving up across the national record charts, but I wasn’t able to tour until I was blessed with an honourable ‘Early-Out’ discharge from USAF, due to the government closing the base where I was stationed. We first performed at the Uptown Theatre in Philadelphia, PA for ten days, doing three shows per day. We shared the line-up with The O’Jays, The Coasters, Esther “Little Esther” Phillips, The Knight Brothers, Bessie Griffin and The Gospel Pearls and Redd Foxx. While we were there, we were sorted with a manager (Herb Nahan, an auto dealer) and a Chrysler Station wagon, and signed with Ruth Bowen of the Queen Booking Agency for more gigs. The Astors toured other venues (mostly in the north-east) with Chuck Berry, Major Lance, Walter Jackson, Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions and several others. We spent several weeks on tour with The James Brown Review too. We also played The Apollo Theater in New York, The Regal Theater in Chicago and The Howard Theater in Washington, DC. All seven to ten day stands. Later we made a return ten day stand at The Uptown Theater with James Brown.
Things were really looking up for us now. During the summer of 1965 we flew from the east coast to Los Angeles to meet up with some of the other Stax artists and spent thirteen days filming “Where The Action Is” (a Dick Clark TV production), and appearing on music variety shows like Shivaree, Shebang and Hollywood-A-Go-Go. In the evenings there would be performances with Billy Preston on Sunset Strip, and at the 5-4 Ballroom with Rufus, Carla Thomas, Booker T & MG’s, William Bell, The Mad-Lads and Wilson Pickett. This was all recorded and ultimately released on “Funky Broadway: Stax Live At The 5/4 Ballroom” (SCD-8567-2).
The story about the Stax artists getting stranded in LA for days when the Watts riots broke out is well documented now, but we were lucky and managed to return home just before everything properly blew up. Before long we were back in the studio, recording our fourth release, the moody “In the Twilight Zone” (Stax S-179), penned by Isaac Hayes, Dave Porter and Sidney Bailey, and with me on lead vocal again. We returned to touring for a while and opened at a large new Memphis nightclub called The Hippodrome, We had a bit of a residency there and performed nightly for several months. We were there with a group of young elementary school musicians, our backup band, that were to become The Bar-Kays. Two more songs were recorded in 1967 at Stax with my brother Harold Johnson, after Richard Harris left the group for a while to spend more time with his family: namely “Daddy Didn’t Tell Me” written by Booker T. Jones, and “More Power to You” (Stax 45-232) written by David Porter and me.
Sam and Eliehue didn’t escape their turn to be drafted into the Army. The rest of us tried performing as a three member group for a while before deciding to go our own separate ways. The time at Stax opened a few doors for me. I took up a song writing position for the local division of Mercury Records, and became producer and director of “A&R R&B products”. I wrote for and produced a number of Mercury artists, including Margie Hendricks and Bobby Hebb. In 1969 Harold and I helped form a group of singers and musicians called Brothers Unlimited. This huge (fourteen member) group toured the Gulf Coast cities and local Memphis nightclubs. We recorded an album, “Who’s For The Young” which Capitol Records released in 1970, and in much later years was reissued by Fallout Records. The group continued to perform until disco came along and we disbanded. I decided to move to Buffalo.
In 1975 Sam Jones, Harold “Quake” Johnson, John “Cousey” Harris, (one of the founders of Brothers Unlimited) and I set up our own production company, Funk Factory Productions Inc., and Funk Factory Publishing Co., operating out of Dayton Ohio, Buffalo, and Memphis. In the late seventies the four of us came together in Buffalo, and produced, recorded and released “Wake Up (You’re Sleeping A Bit Too Late)” backed with “If You Ain’t Got No Money (You Can’t Get No Honey)” (Funk Factory Records FFA1001), under the name The C.Q.C’S. (Curtis-Quake-Cousey-Sam).
The Astors hadn’t performed on stage together since 1968. Around 2013 we were asked by Tim Sampson, Communications Director at the Soulsville Foundation, to perform at the 4th Annual Stax To The Max Festival in the grounds of the Stax Museum, Stax Music Academy, Soulsville Foundation, and Soulsville Charter School. We were very honoured, but hesitated because we hadn’t performed together (other than at birthdays or family get togethers) for over forty-five years. We talked it over and decided it would be fun. We put in the time necessary to get back in shape musically for the show and had fun times in rehearsals, and recalling the old days at Stax with the students at Soulsville. As far as the show April 28, 2013 was concerned, it was a thrill to be back on stage together again. Our children, grandchildren, and even some of our spouses had never seen us perform on stage live before. It was just a truly wonderful and humbling experience which I’m extremely thankful for.”
(Copyright 2023) E. Mark Windle is a freelance writer and biographer, working independently, as a senior writer with Story Terrace (London, UK), and for Sheridan Hill / Real Life Stories LLC (North Carolina, USA). Contact him via https://windlefreelance.com/contact/